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Mary in mourning (Picture: The Guardian)

Another Varsity review. This is the slightly extended version before I cut out bits to get the word count down. Read the concise version here.

Downton Abbey, ITV1

It wouldn’t be Downton Abbey if early on we didn’t have the customary time-passes-really-rather-quickly-in-this-programme dialogue.

‘It’s a changing world,’ laments Molesley Sr.

‘You don’t have to tell me that,’ replies Violet, pensively. (But Julian Fellowes clearly felt we needed reminding.)

Because in case you hadn’t picked up on it from the endless pre-series promotion and considerable abundance of finger waves, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey now find themselves in the Roaring Twenties. All except Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently, who spends her time gazing desolately out of windows and occasionally descending the staircase like a beautiful version of Miss Havisham carved from alabaster. The reason being, of course, the untimely death of her husband Matthew. Dockery plays the part of a walking talking ice block throughout most of this 90 minute episode, not even thawing when cradling her tiny son, George, in her lily-white arms.

There’s a lot of talk of George: ‘What about George?’ ‘I’m interested in George.’ This is because George is very important. George is The Heir. And we’re reminded of this fact a lot. After a while, I found it more entertaining to imagine that everyone was actually talking about Prince George. It turned the Granthams from landowners preoccupied with inheritance to Hello-reading monarchists.

Branson (Allen Leech) wants Mary involved in the management of Downton, but Robert (Hugh Bonneville) wants to keep her ‘safe’; wrapped up like a piece of fine china. Nevertheless, intervention from the indomitable Violet (Maggie Smith), and a pep talk from Carson (Jim Carter) mean that by the end of the episode Mary has swapped black for lilac and is holding court amongst a dozen farmers. Well, she was never one to listen to her father. I sincerely hope that the rest of the series will centre around this new Power Mary as she storms round the estate in a sharp suit and killer heels, juggling her career in estate management with being a mum to baby George – sort of like a 1920s Sheryl Sandberg. (Possibly with a thriving carpentry business on the side, should she decide to act on Branson’s recommendation…)

What of the other characters? Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is as gloriously bitchy as ever, looking for a replacement nemesis after O’Brien’s surprise departure. His new target, Nanny West (Di Botcher), doesn’t last long, though. She departs in what is arguably the most dramatic scene in an otherwise sluggish episode, paving the way for yet more scheming.

Meanwhile, Edith’s editor beau (Charles Edwards, who looks disconcertingly like a younger version of runaway bridegroom Anthony Strallen) is trying to persuade her to go abroad with him so that he can divorce his mad wife and marry her instead. However, his proposed destination is interwar Germany, which I imagine isn’t the most romantic of places. We also saw the return of Edna Braithwaite (the shady maid who tried to hit on Branson last Christmas, played by MyAnna Buring), and there was cautionary tale about excessive alcohol consumption: very apt as Freshers Week sweeps the country.

Judging by this episode alone – in which the introduction of an electric whisk was a major source of drama – Downton doesn’t look set to emerge from the rut it found itself in during last series. The preview for next week looked a bit more promising in the scandal stakes. Nevertheless, if we’re going to return to series one standards then we need about 500% more illicit affairs, 200% more backstabbing and a lot more screen time from Violet.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby (Picture: Digital Spy)

This coming term I am TV critic for Varsity, one of Cambridge’s student newspapers. I’ve already reviewed Strictly Come Dancing and new BBC drama Peaky Blinders, both of which can be read below.

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

Peaky Blinders is set in post-World War I Birmingham, but it has the feel of a Western. It opens with Cillian Murphy (occupying the position of Primetime BBC Cheekbones whilst Benedict Cumberbatch is away) riding on horseback through a filthy slum. Men, women and children scatter as he approaches, whilst drums thud in the background and a lonely viola plays a haunting solo. Murphy cuts a menacing figure as Tommy Shelby, the kingpin of the Peaky Blinders- so called because of the razors stitched into the peaks of their flat caps.

Tommy is a compelling character. He received medals for gallantry in the war, but now he’s fixing bets and hiding stolen ammunition. He’s treated with reverence and wariness by those who know who he is – which turns out to be almost everyone. Whilst his stony gaze hints he isn’t to be crossed, we glimpse moments of compassion, particularly in his treatment of his shell-shocked friend, that suggest there is more to this character than meets the eye.

The drama is heavily stylised. The action is painted in muddy browns and earthy greys so that when colour does appear it stands out and sticks in the memory: red powder billowing through the air; blood spatter on pale skin. This technique is used to great effect with the arrival of the enigmatic Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis). She appears dressed in vivid green and strolling calmly down a mucky, dilapidated street in which she is so clearly out of place. “Are you a whore?” asks Tommy, in a somewhat unconventional introduction. “’Cause if you’re not, you’re in the wrong place.”

This is a violent world where the power balance is held in place by bribes, blackmail and murder. However, the arrival of Northern Irish Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) threatens the fragile order. A ruthless Javert-like character, he has been sent to rid Birmingham of gangs, communists and the IRA. While I’m on the subject of communists, we’ve seen the ‘sister has affair with man holding controversial political views’ in many a drama before (Downton Abbey, anyone? Upstairs Downstairs?) so this aspect of the storyline didn’t exactly put me on the edge of my seat.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of potential in Peaky Blinders. A nice bit of intrigue has been set up involving stolen guns, and I’d hazard a guess that something is going to happen between Tommy and Grace, signalled by the lingering gaze they shared mid-episode. The fact that she (perhaps predictably) turns out to be more than just a barmaid with a pretty voice might make things more interesting though. Overall, then, Peaky Blinders is definitely one to stick with.

Strictly Come Dancing, BBC1

I have a confession to make. I’ve never actually watched Strictly Come Dancing; I’ve always been more of an X Factor girl. So when the request to review the launch show for the new series dropped into my inbox, I must admit my heart sank a little. How was I going to write a decent view of such a well-loved show, having had no experience of previous series? Then I realised – that’s kind of the point of a review, right? An impartial and carefully considered evaluation of a piece of culture. I therefore present to you the first impressions of a Strictly newbie.

Actually, my first impression was that I might not be so far from The X Factor after all. There were the same cheering crowds, pyrotechnics, and judges arriving in swanky forms of transport. I got the feeling everyone was rather excited. They even did a dance to The Pointer Sisters to prove it. So far so good.

Now to the contestants. They range from TV presenters to rugby players via soap stars, a Hairy Biker and Vanessa Feltz. Also in the mix is noughties dance floor murderer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Dragon Deborah Meaden and former pro-golfer Tony Jacklin.

I will say that for a show in which pretty much nothing happens, it managed to be fairly entertaining. The revealing of couples, however, could have been done in half the time. Admittedly the repetitiveness of this segment was diminished slightly by interspersing the announcements with a lively performance from Jessie J and the return of last year’s winner, Olympic gymnast Louis Smith and his partner Flavia. Their sparkling Charleston was the highlight of the show – which does suggest that it might be worth persevering with the series (or ducking back in when it gets to the final six).

Still, the end of the episode dragged. Former Bond Girl and current contestant Fiona Fullerton proclaimed that she had been ‘watching this series for ten years!’ and I think I might know how she feels.

I started to flag at Rod Stewart’s performance but soon after it was (to quote Brucie) ‘the moment you’ve all been waiting for!’ No, not the end of the show, but a group performance in which the contestants and their partners strutted their stuff for the first time. I’d love to finish off with suggesting a favourite to win, or making some savvy statement about the ones to watch. However, I’m not going to flatter myself by pretending I have any idea. I will say, though, it’s probably not going to be the Hairy Biker.

The reviews on Varsity can be found here and here.

Photo: Digital Spy

The X Factor, ITV1

Hey guys! You know One Direction? That boy band that are, like H-UGE at the moment? Guess what? They came from THE X FACTOR! And guys! You know what else? They’ve totally got a FILM out at the moment! So you know you guys should really go WATCH the FILM! Because they came from THE X FACTOR!

That was essentially the introduction to Saturday’s episode of The X Factor, the first of the new series which is now set to run (and run and run) until Christmas. (It’s like a really really long, drawn-out Advent calendar that replaces chocolate with Whitney Houston covers every time you open a door, culminating in an inevitably under-par rendition of a decent song with an added gospel choir and key change when you finally get to the door reading ‘Christmas Number 1’.)

Anyway, as I was saying, The X Factor thought it necessary to remind us that they are the culprits behind the plague of screaming teenage fangirls that descended on Leicester Square a couple of weeks ago. Thanks. They also took the time to explain the new not-as-complicated-as-it-was-made-out-to-be system of the DOUBLE AUDITION, which basically just means that instead of one audition in an arena, there are two auditions – one in the room today and another in an arena tomorrow. So if weekly X Factor all the way through to Yuletide doesn’t quite cut it for you, you now have the option of twice-weekly X Factor. Yippeeeee.

This series marks the return of Sharon Osborne, an event that cynics might cite as a desperate bid to boost the festering viewing figures of recent years. I’m inclined to disagree. If I had been given the task of reclaiming viewers for a tired talent show format, ‘Bringing back Sharon Osborne’ would have been pretty low on my List of Things That Will Make the Show Infinitely More Watchable and Enjoyable: probably somewhere between ‘Replacing Dermot with Jedward’ and ‘Giving Louis a category other than the groups for once’. However, there is one thing we all seem to agree on: that the show has never been the same since the live auditions were introduced. Keen to resurrect the stifled snorting-into-teacups and prolonged awkward silences that sustained previous series, The X Factor producers have relocated the auditions to the cardboard-flanked room once again.

It kind of worked. There were a couple of auditions that showed glimmers of the brilliance of yesterseries, namely the two girls singing operatically out of key, iPod earphones plugged firmly into their ears. But mostly you got the feeling that The X Factor was trying too hard to be funny again. This was especially evident in the so-hammed-up-it-had-to-be-a-joke rendition of Halelujah from model J Star Valentine (I know, I know), as well as in the whole ‘Fil-with-an-F’ debacle, during which I cringed for all the wrong reasons (just think Gary Barlow trying to do rock ‘n’ roll and that’s probably all you need to know). When it came to it, however, Mrs O was not as irritating as I had anticipated. Her ability to not take anything remotely seriously was refreshing and luckily, when it came to the other judges, contagious.

Sunday’s episode was basically a repeat of Saturday’s episode. Except (as we were reminded of once again in the introduction in case we hadn’t quite got it last night) it took place in the ARENA. Because we’re doing DOUBLE AUDITIONS this year. That means there are TWO of them. You may be thinking, and reasonably at that, that a second audition stage might be quite useful in order to whittle down the auditionees so that the Boot Camp stage isn’t quite so laborious. And this would be the case, had the judges not let people through in the first stage that could barely cut it in a small room, let alone in an arena. Let’s be honest, one guy was a Justin Bieber tribute act – was that not a bit of a clue?

There were some obvious finalists here though. Obvious in the sense that the show wasted no time in searing their backstories onto our brains so that the next time we hear them sing we’ll immediately think, ‘Oh, this is the girl who has a difficult relationship with her mum/the prison officer mother who has low self-confidence/the 16-year-old who got separated from her audition partner in the first stage, forgot her words in the second stage, but nevertheless blew everyone away with her impressive but shouty Whitney Houston cover‘. Oh, X Factor…

Sob stories have always been a feature of the show, but they weren’t what attracted viewers. Instead, it was the colourful, endearing, deluded and often downright nutty auditionees that kept people coming back. The return to the room auditions is, granted, a massive improvement, but most of the auditions were either rushed, forced or predictable. Maybe the likes of Ant and Seb and Steven the Rapper just don’t audition any more. If that’s the case then I can’t see previous audiences returning either.